Reflecting on Scripture in the Aftermath
Adapted from a sermon given at Grace Church, Martha’s Vineyard
March 14, 2010
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
This morning’s Gospel is challenging to hear in light of all that we have witnessed in Haiti since January 12th. We know it best as the Prodigal Son, but it could just as easily be called the All Faithful, Loving and Forgiving Father. And, of course, that is the image of God we are to take away from this parable. A portrait of our Heavenly Father who cares infinitely and deeply for each one of us, who lavishes us with his love, even at the cost of alienating those to whom his gratitude is perhaps most due: the hardest working and most deserving of his children. In the aftermath of the quake, I find myself as touched as I am incredulous at this tender image of the Father.
When the quake struck I was teaching seminarians in the building adjacent to the Seminary, the Episcopal Diocese’s College St. Pierre, one of Port-au-Princes most respected secondary schools. My students and I darted out of the classroom and fled to the campus’ soccer field, where we hoped to escape the deadly devastation. Others who worked and lived close by also sought refuge there. Between the powerful aftershocks that followed, several women collapsed to their knees. With tears streaming down their tormented faces they breathlessly protested in loud voices, “Poukwa Bondye? Poukwa Pè? Poukwa?” (Why God? Why Father? Why?) And “No more, please, no more! Enough!” But their protests fell on deaf ears as the earth continued to thrash about in its death throes.
I remember that moment very vividly: mothers pleading for Heaven to relent as I gazed silently upon the ruins of the building I had been teaching in only minutes before. In that moment I felt a sudden and intense anger rise within me as I recalled Jesus’ famous words in the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you… Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? …If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:7-12).
Port au prince was an entire city seeking, asking, praying for bread. They believed their Heavenly Father was listening; so did I. Things were looking up. Clinton had just announced a major multinational investment to update Haiti’s antiquated infrastructure. The country seemed finally to begin recovering from the trauma inflicted by the 4 hurricanes that struck in the summer of 2008. And the World Food Program’s urgent appeal to the international community on October 27th to replenish Haiti’s diminishing food stores was meeting with some success. The people lifted up their voices to heaven and cried out for bread, and for a time it seemed like their prayers were being heard. But on January 12th they were answered instead with a torrent of stone—crushing, dismembering stone. Brittle concrete: splintering, cracking and slicing its way through everything in its vertical fall back to the earth.
I am at a loss. Have been since that fateful Tuesday evening. I know it sounds cliché, but where was God when the quake struck? How could I possibly cling to faith in a benevolent Father when so many of his children were maimed and dying on that field, or buried under the rubble? Where was their Heavenly Father then? Surely, if I had to tell the parable over today, I would tell of a Prodigal Father, not of a Prodigal Son. I would invoke Job’s cutting observation that “It is all one;” that “he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.” That “when disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.” And with Job I would demand, “If it is not he, who then is it?” (Job 9:22-24)
The closest experience I had of God in the aftermath was tending to an injured boy, about my nephew’s age, probably 7 or 8 years old. He was one of the children taken to the field from St. Vincent’s School for the Handicapped about a mile farther south in downtown Port-au-Prince. Mallory, the other Young Adult Service Corps missionary, had courageously gone back to her apartment just beyond the field and recovered basic first aid supplies to help the injured. As word of these new resources spread on the field, Mallory quickly found herself overwhelmed with requests for help, and so enlisted me and a seminarian, Goursse, to triage the requests. At a certain point, one of this boy’s peers came up to us and asked for our help.
We approached the boy and Mallory asked him, “What is your name?” She always asked for a name before proceeding with diagnostic questions—a simple gesture of human kindness in the midst of so much senseless, natural violence. But the boy didn’t answer. Instead he winced, clutching his sides as he rolled over, making sad little noises that were something between a squeal and a cry. “Timoun, quel est ton nom?” (Child, what’s your name?) Mallory asked again. But this time the young girl seated next to him—who had no arms—told us that he was deaf and mute. There was a sad resignation in her voice as she looked upon him with all the loving compassion of an older sister, and I marveled at how these children had become a great, extended family in the absence of their biological ones. The boy could not tell us his name, and the girl did not offer one. In his namelessness, that boy became for me every child suffering and dying in Port-au-Prince that night.
Rocking back and forth on his cardboard gurney, his little body shuttering with unimaginable pain, the boy twisted his head in my direction and stared plaintively into my eyes—his tears forging dark branches on his cheeks as they washed away the white concrete dust on his face. And for a moment the ivory-hewn Jesus of the crucifix that I gazed upon so many times in the SSJE Monastery Chapel in Cambridge seemed to gaze back at me in his innocent, tortured face and his slender, sinewy limbs.
I felt so helpless, kneeling over him, cooing in his ear and cupping his head in my hands, trying to comfort him as Mallory struggled to dress his wounds. I found myself humming the tune to My Shepherd Will Supply My Need as my own tears mixed with his. Goursse was with me then, and I spied out of the corner of my eye a single drop making its way down his cheek too. Deep patches of skin had become detached from the boy’s body, dangling like flesh lapels that needed to be pressed back into place. My heart broke as he recoiled in agony each time Mallory gently tried to secure them to his body with medical tape. After several attempts, she decided it would be less painful for him if we simply covered his wounds with loose pieces of gauze. She then instructed his friends to keep vigil over him during the night. His wounds were so grave, his fragile body continued shivering uncontrollably, and I wished that our compassion would be enough to heal him, but it was not. It was not enough. He had lost too much blood. His wounds were too deep.
I believe I saw into the Father's heart then too, though this time not from a place of bitterness or anger, but from a place of profound sorrow and sympathy. Tears welled up in my eyes as I glimpsed for only a second the unfathomable anguish the Father must have experienced as he watched his Son’s body writhe and scrape against the wood of the cross, as he looked on in horror at all the incomparable suffering his Beloved Son had to endure because of senseless, albeit human, violence. Of course, our tradition tells us that the Son’s suffering was not merely human, but a divine predicate of our salvation; that Christ became the paschal Lamb of God to ransom us all from death. As our New Testament reading put it this morning: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”—the Bread of Life broken and shared, commemorated and celebrated at the altar and in our hearts every Sunday in the Holy Eucharist.
As I witnessed his excruciating end, I was tempted to extend this same sentiment toward the nameless boy. His suffering must bear enormous merit, I thought: one of countless seeds sewn in Haiti’s native soil to bring forth new life, a new beginning for this impoverished island nation. A sacrificial grain whose death would bear much fruit, the pledge of a bountiful harvest and bread without end. Surely now, others would be moved to action and to help. Surely now the Haitian people would, as the Second Lesson today put it, “no longer be regarded from a human point of view”, but as the children of God that they are: endowed with the surpassing dignity of their Father’s image, infinitely worthy of our love and care. Surely now, we would not casually dismiss the sea of anonymous faces on the evening news, but recognize Christ’s own face in each one of his afflicted Haitian sisters and brothers.
In fact, like me, many people have been tempted to map onto the quake a kind of Passion narrative for the people of Haiti. But I hesitate to embrace this sacrificial logic, however politely advanced and well-meaning it may be. The implication that God allowed the quake to happen because it was the only way to rebuild Haiti seems absurd, perhaps even offensive. I believe in a God more powerful and more compassionate than that; a God of deliverance, not disaster. Still, many continue to suggest that through the torrent of stone Haiti will soon be getting much more bread. I’m not so sure, and I don’t think we should forget the dead and suffering so quickly, or be willing to offer them up like that.
Instead, we might consider enlarging our spiritual generosity toward the people of Haiti, as we have already extended our material generosity. While it is profoundly important and good for us to speak of and work toward resurrection, we must be mindful of the weight of the cross that our sisters and brothers continue to bear in the aftermath. We must not forget that this disaster is ongoing, both in its physical manifestations throughout the country, and in the broken hearts and lives of Haiti’s people. For them, Good Friday will not pass simply because we dream of a better future for them and send in our checks. Some wounds are too deep.
When reconstruction begins, and the intimations of resurrection appear as the stone is rolled away from the tomb which Port-au-Prince has become, we must know that just as our Lord’s resurrected body was indelibly marked by the wounds he suffered in the flesh (G. John 20: 24-28), so also Haiti will be marked forever by the piercing sadness of this tragedy. The glorious light of the resurrection is not unmarred by the unspeakable darkness of betrayal and death. It is all one. In the end, I must acknowledge that I can only sit in this space of ferocious ambiguity between believing that God truly is the source of all things, including devastating earth quakes, and that God cares for us all with a love that is beyond our meager powers of human comprehension. That like the blood and water gushing from Christ's side, these paradoxical realities are intermingled in the crucible of our Common Cup. Father and Son, bread and stone, death and resurrection—all are one.